May’s White Paper is a red rag to Brexit bulls

May’s White Paper is a red rag to Brexit bulls

Almost two years to the day since Theresa May became Britain’s prime minister, she sought last week to draw a line in the sand with publication of her government’s Brexit White Paper. But it is unlikely to be the last word, having already coming under fire from the political right and left, not to mention US President Donald Trump. 

This move to define the UK’s final negotiating position follows a nationwide debate about the meaning of the 2016 referendum result. Contrary to what many Brexiteers now insist, the Leave vote encapsulated a range of sentiment, and there is still no consensus on any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly, which makes May’s task enormously difficult.

However, decision time is fast approaching. The UK government now has less than nine months to deliver a final Brexit framework settlement.  

After the Cabinet resignations last week of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, the White Paper set out the preferred pathway. The clear view of the prime minister (a reluctant Remainer in the 2016 referendum) is that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the Leave campaign’s victory. 

From this perspective, it follows in the White Paper that better controlling EU migration flows and ending the UK jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice should be key objectives. Given the EU’s commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital, May has sought to strike a Brexit balancing act between delivering on these objectives, while seeking to avoid the hardest of hard Brexits favored by some in her Conservative party.

In May’s vision the UK will, in her words, discard all “bits of the EU” — membership of the European single market with its 500 million consumers, the customs union, the common commercial policy and the common commercial tariff. 

But a central challenge, in her politically weakened position, is that she is now challenged on several fronts. From the Right, Brexiteers such Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg argue that the compromises with Brussels in the White Paper are already a step too far, and they would rather see a hard, disorderly Brexit and no final settlement with the EU than what she proposes.

Conversely, many who supported Remain in the referendum tend to favor a softer Brexit than May, potentially combined with a referendum on the terms of any exit deal. From this perspective, the prime minister’s narrative (let alone that of hard-liners such as Johnson) about the referendum’s meaning is far from the full picture, and there were in fact diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by those who voted to leave. 

Some Leave voters, for instance, of an isolationist bent focused on the perceived costs and constraints of EU membership rather than immigration and sovereignty. A significant slice of the electorate voted Leave as a protest against non-EU issues such as the domestic austerity measures since the 2008 international financial crisis.

On his visit to the UK this weekend, Trump questioned whether a US-UK trade deal was possible under May’s preferred Brexit approach, contrary to what the prime minister herself claims.

Andrew Hammond

Many of these voters were fixated by the issue of UK financial contributions to the EU’s budget. They were also taken in by the spurious promises that all the funds currently paid to Brussels would be pumped back into UK public spending, especially the health service. 

However, other Leavers voted in 2016 for an alternative vision of a buccaneering global UK that would secure new ties with countries outside the EU. Many of these people — who favor more, not less, international engagement — now want to see, for instance, new trade deals with key Asian markets such China and India, the Gulf states, and mature markets such as the US, Canada and Australia.

But on his visit to the UK this weekend, Trump questioned whether a US-UK trade deal was possible under May’s preferred Brexit approach, contrary to what the prime minister herself claims. Trump’s intervention, however inaccurate, has given succor to hard Brexiteers in her party.   

In this context of continuing divisions, Brexit is recasting the positioning of the UK’s main political parties (those with representation in England, Scotland and Wales) making it hard for May to secure backing in Westminster for her EU strategy. On one pole, the ruling Conservatives had been unifying in 2017 around May’s Brexit stance. But as the resignations of Johnson and Davis show, Conservative hard Brexiteers are increasingly at odds with her. Given that May already lacks a majority in Parliament, without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, this is a significant challenge.

Indeed, she could yet need Opposition support on forthcoming Brexit votes in the House of Commons. This will not come from the Liberal Democrats (nor the Scottish Nationalist Party) who continue to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit.

Some Labour MPs — the small number who favored Leave — may continue to support her on Brexit, but the bulk of the party will probably not. In part, this is because Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn believes that remaining in a customs union with the EU is a key priority (unlike May), because he sees no other way to remove the threat of a hard border in Ireland.

Besieged on several fronts, May’s hold on power continues to be fragile and it remains possible she could herself be unseated from Downing Street before next March.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Econ

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